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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Leo Jensen’s playful artworks go well beyond his iconic Willimantic-bridge frogs

    Leo Jensen, Football Machine, 1963, painted wood, bronze, steel, and mixed media kinetic sculpture, 96 x 67 x 22 in. Courtesy of the artist’s estate. (On view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum)
    Leo Jensen with model for Thread City Crossing frog sculpture at his Ivoryton workshop, 1995 (On view at the Florence Griswold Museum)
    The introductory segment of “Fun & Games? Leo Jensen’s Pop Art” at the Florence Griswold Museum.
    Leo Jensen, Secrets of a Home Run Hitter, 1964, polychromed wood and mixed media assemblage (electric) (On view at the Florence Griswold Musuem)
    Leo Jensen, Girl in Crash Helmet, 1964, painted wood and Masonite, 39 x 41 x 6 in. Courtesy of the artist’s estate. (On view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum)
    Leo Jensen, Snapshot, 1988, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist’s estate. (On view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum)
    Leo Jensen, The Lure of the Turf, 1963, wood, painted steel (On view at the Florence Griswold Museum)
    Leo Jensen, Flea Market, 1958/61, oil on canvas (On view at the Florence Griswold Museum)

    For Connecticut residents, artist Leo Jensen’s best-known work is on a bridge in Willimantic.

    He’s the creator of the iconic bronze frogs that sit on the Thread City Crossing Bridge in that city.

    But his work and his legacy are so much more.

    That is clear in two concurrent exhibitions of his art featured at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.

    “Art in Play: Leo Jensen” is on view until April 14 at the Lyman Allyn, and “Fun & Games? Leo Jensen’s Pop Art” runs through May 19 at Flo Gris.

    The titles of both shows reflect the wit and sense of fun that imbue Jensen’s work.

    A horse figure is built of scraps of coffee cans, creating a riot of color. The creature stands on stilt-like legs, reminiscent of an unsteady, long-legged foal first trying to walk.

    A plywood dog head has the words “Arf! Arf!” carved out of the wood where his teeth would be.

    Other sculptures move. A football player hugging the ball to his chest is the center of a wheel-of-fortune, with sections on the wheel emblazoned with words and phrases like “INTERCEPTED,” “TOUCHDOWN” and “10 YD GAIN.” A separate baseball version places baseball players, an umpire and a female spectator at weathervane points, separated by baseball bats, and circling a tiny replica of a field along with options “FOUL” and “STRIKE.”

    If those kinetic sculptures call to mind carnival games, there’s a reason. And there’s a reason for the abundance of horses and cowboys in his artworks.

    Jensen, who lived from 1926 to 2019, was born in Minnesota and spent much time in his younger years in circuses and rodeos. His family traveled with the circus during the Depression, and he became a rodeo trick rider as a teenager. Jensen wove signs and symbols from those worlds into his Pop Art later in life.

    He studied at the Walker Art Center School in Minneapolis in the late 1940s and relocated to the East Coast to focus on his art. He helped to support himself by working as a window dresser in New Haven.

    He eventually moved to the Lyme area, where he could get his rent reduced by taking care of his landlord’s horses on the property on Elys Ferry Road. Jensen and his wife, artist Dalia Ramanauskas, lived in Lyme 1958-1966 and then settled in Ivoryton.

    Jensen became a prominent figure in the early Pop Art scene. Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator at the Florence Griswold Museum, noted that, as Pop Art was taking off in the U.S., Jensen was exhibiting alongside artists like Andy Warhol in shows that made Americans aware of the emerging art movement.

    Jensen’s kinetic sculptures were his most significant contribution to Pop Art.

    “There’s a transition that artists engineer in the early 1960s away from art being these objects that you look at passively on the wall toward art being something that is interactive and experiential,” Lansing said. “I think Leo’s work, because you spin them and move them, are really important in that transition happening.”

    Tanya Pohrt, curator at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, likewise said that Jensen made objects that were unique and were very different from what anyone else was doing.

    “That was particularly true in the mid-1960s, in this Pop Art moment when he created these kinetic sculptures that have lights and move. I think that was a categorical addition — one of the things he could claim as sort of inventing this subtype of object,” she said.

    (Museumgoers aren’t allowed to touch these sculptures; staffers will spin the pieces on request or at various scheduled times.)

    Playful, meaningful

    While Jensen’s art has a sense of fun, he is also saying something meaningful about subjects like American culture. His art explores such issues as America’s glorification of sports and other entertainment figures. His use of found materials reflects the disposability rampant in a consumer culture.

    Pohrt said that Jensen’s “humor and his playfulness are really interesting because they’re combined with other critiques or societal observations and commentary, reflections on the history of art, on ideas from our culture on a variety of levels. I think, like a lot of good humor, it brings you in with a semi-carnival aspect in some elements but then challenges you to think harder about some imagery and ideas as you go through.”

    Lansing said Jensen was able to strike a unique balance — transmitting fairly serious messages about American society but doing it in a way that allows us to laugh at ourselves.

    She thinks that, since Jensen grew up in the carnival and rodeo worlds, he had a grasp on how to grab audiences with entertainment elements but still engage them with deeper meanings.

    Shifting gears

    One of the striking things about Jensen is that his work evolved and changed. Pohrt said that some artists who became famous during the same era as Jensen in Pop Art continued to make very similar looking objects over time.

    She said that Jensen, though, “didn’t remain static in his interests. He shifted gears and investigated a variety of other ideas and methods for working. Maybe that was a challenge in some ways. I think he didn’t ever quite find the level of economic security and fame that I think all artists would hope for, but he stayed true to his eccentric vision of making art that satisfied his ideas and his interests (which is) an honorable kind of stance to be in.”

    Lansing said that Jensen was very experimental and has such good craftsmanship skills that he could figure out how to pursue his ideas and his inventiveness in various forms.

    “He goes from making the Pop work that is kind of slick and commercial-looking, where he’s drawing on the language of advertising and consumer products. Then he starts to say, ‘Let’s show how everything is made,’ and he starts making these obviously big stitches, where he’s sewing the pieces of his works together with these jute fibers,” she said.

    Those latter methods are exemplified in pieces like “Power Garments” and “Make Way for Yesterday,” where he stitched wood shingles with jute fiber “all assembled like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster,” as the Flo Gris wall text states.

    It’s a recognition that nothing a viewer is looking at came about by accident, so let’s acknowledge they are fabrications, Lansing said.

    Agog at frogs

    The Flo Gris exhibition features a section about the four monumental bronze frogs that Jensen created for Willimantic’s Thread City Crossing Bridge. The amphibians reference a piece of lore, that in 1754, townsfolk heard noises that made them think they were being attacked during the French and Indian War — or that the sounds were the trumpets of Judgment Day. Turns out, they were hundreds of frogs that had relocated to a local pond because of a drought.

    Jensen carved the frogs in wood at one-quarter scale, which were enlarged into plaster molds and cast in bronze. They were installed in 2000. The Flo Gris exhibition notes that “the frogs are rare civic sculptures that manage to commemorate and delight.”

    One artist, two museums

    The dual exhibitions developed after Ramanauskas reached out to Lyman Allyn and Flo Gris about Jensen’s work.

    Both museums were interested. Initially, the Lyman Allyn backed off, but then they realized “there was plenty of art to go around and it would be really fun to collaborate,” Pohrt said. “Our show is more focused and it’s smaller. Theirs is more of a full retrospective, but given the galleries we had available in an overlapping time span, it made sense, and we were excited to be able to do our more focused show in our first floor Glassenberg Gallery.”

    Lansing agreed that there was a wealth of Jensen’s work and a great deal to say about him — in other words, a lot to show and share. And the exhibitions at Flo Gris and Lyman Allyn are complementary, not duplications. Both shows span his different styles and materials and display his breadth as an artist.

    Lansing also noted that, while folks might think there is the same audience for both museums, research has shown that’s not the case.

    “Amazingly enough, there’s not a lot of overlap, so we’re also trying to reach out to art lovers, the museum lovers that each of us tap into as institutions, and share the wealth,” she said.

    Even more relevant now

    Lansing said that while we can explore some of the cultural references that Jensen is making in the 1960s, “the kind of consumer-oriented, image-oriented, media-oriented society that he is showing us, we are still living in that today. … So I feel it is also really relevant. It’s not just a time capsule about Pop in the ‘60s. It’s really about how that’s evolved today.”

    As for the dual exhibitions, Pohrt said it is “a special opportunity to see works of art brought together at two institutions that really fill in a comprehensive view of Jensen’s life and career. For folks who have seen his frogs on the (Willimantic) bridge, it gives a window into this much richer career. It’s an exciting moment to really celebrate the accomplishments of a local Connecticut artist.”

    If you go

    What: “Fun & Games? Leo Jensen’s Pop Art”

    Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

    When: Through May 19; hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sun. through this Sun.; after that, the site is open till 5 p.m. on all of those days.

    Admission: $15 for adults, $14 ages 62 and up, $13 students ages 13 and up, $5 for ages 5-12, free for kids 4 and younger

    Contact: (860) 434-5542, florencegriswoldmuseum.org


    What: “Art in Play: Leo Jensen”

    Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

    When: Through April 14; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

    Admission: $12 for adults; $9 seniors; $7 active military; $5 students; $3 via the Museums for All program for adults with SNAP EBT Card, free for kids under 12, for members, and for New London residents.

    Contact: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org

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